Friday, December 14, 2007

Sacrificing at the Altair

The eagle with the olive branch on the patch is familiar. Evenly brown with the recognizable white head and tail. But this bird is not representative of his mission. No, this bird should have been speckled with white, the sign of an immature bird facing much risk in its young life.

Altair is a vertex in the Summer Triangle in the Aquila constellation. It is most notable for its extreme rapid rotation. How fitting! In astrology, Altair is ill-omened, portending danger from reptiles (named Marsha?).

And so the Lunar Surface Access Module now has a new name. And that, unfortunately, is about all of significance revealed at yesterday's Lunar Lander Industry Day at JSC.

Lauri Hansen and her speckled brown team showed a design that does not close. A "minimum functionality lander." After spending six months with 50 minions from all of the field centers she was only able to offer a product that was less descriptive than an aerospace design class in Neil Armstrong's new building at Purdue would have produced. The professor would have handed out a D- on this one. Stack up this lander next to the original Grumman LEM, adjust for scale differences, and this lander has less capability than its 40 year old parent. By Hansen's own admission, the lander has no redundancy, meets none of the space program's latter day safety requirements, and will now be open to investment, errr, we mean review, by four industry teams, each receiving $350K to tell NASA what a crummy job they did.

But, is there a bigger message lurking behind Hansen's cartoons? We think so. In fact, Hansen may succeed where Skip Hatfield failed. If she is successful, the Emperor will have been told that he has no clothes, and even if he did cover up, no one is missing much. How will she do this?

We think Hansen and her team figured out that the ESAS architecture is broke and this pitiful lander design was her way of telling the world while saving her job. You could hear that message coming through loud in clear in their voices as they walked down the list of "closed trades," items that could not be changed by mandate from the Emperor. Each one of the closed trades are giant levers in the pony-tailed architecture. First and foremost, having the lander perform the lunar injection burn, and then carrying the now mostly empty parasitic tank mass to the surface, is one of those big levers. We can't think of a less efficient way of performing the job of landing humans on the surface of the moon once again. Want to bet the "usually eager to copy" Chinese don't follow this path?

We hope we are right about Hansen. We won't remember this particular lander design, but we may just remember her name in 2020 if our optimistic point of view is correct.


Mr. X said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mr. X said...

Agreed on the futility of tacking the LOI burn onto the lander requirements. I've been wondering about that one for a while, and the only explanation is because Orion would be too heavy for Ares if it was forced to perform the LOI burn.

If NASA wants to get Altair to fit within the mass budgets, they should start by de-scoping the requirements. Reduce the number of man-days the lander is expected to last.

Chuck said...

"First and foremost, having the lander perform the lunar injection burn, and then carrying the now mostly empty parasitic tank mass to the surface, is one of those big levers."

The ONLY way this can be salvaged is if the TLI propellant is housed in some type of drop tank that is jettisoned after the burn is complete. The LSAM *cannot* afford to carry the dead weight of depleated propellant tankage.

Space said...

Off-topic FYI...

Today, Congress cut Exploration Systems, which includes Constellation/Ares 1/Orion, to the tune of $82 million versus the White House request in the conference bill for NASA's FY 2008 appropriations bill. Like last year's flat funding of Constellation, this may force another delay in the Ares 1/Orion schedule.

STS/ISS was the only other program area to get a cut and it was considerably smaller. And Congress met the overall request for NASA. It would appear that Congress, or at least the appropriators, are targeting Exploration Systems.

Here's a repost of the details from a post at

Congress met the White House’s overall request for NASA of $17,309 million. But there is some shuffling of funds, with most programs getting a boost at the expense of Exploration Systems, which includes Constellation/Ares I/Orion, and Exploration Capabilities, which includes STS/ISS.

Aeronautics gets a boost of $71 million, from $554 million in the request to $625 million in the bill.

Science gets a boost of $61 million, from $5,516 million in the request to $5,577 million in the bill.

Even Cross-Agency Support Programs (things like education, SBIR, tech transfer, prizes) gets a boost of $67 million, from $489 million in the request to $556 million in the bill. I don’t know whether any of that falls to useful programs like prizes — I have yet to read the full report language.

Exploration Systems, which includes Constellation (including Ares I/Orion) and Advanced Capabilities (exploration technology like new astronaut suits), however, gets a cut of $82 million, from $3,924 million in the request to $3,842 million in the bill. It’s not certain that such a cut would force another delay in the schedule for Ares I/Orion. But the White House request for both Constellation and Advanced Capabilities was already facing a dip going from FY 2007 to FY 2008, so another delay is likely.

Exploration Capabilities, which includes ISS and STS, also takes a cut of $58 million, from $6,792 million to $6,734 million.

There’s also language in the bill about limiting the amount of funding that goes to overhead functions. I presume that Congress is doing this to make room for earmarks in the report language, which I have yet to go through.

There’s still some steps to be taken before these numbers get fixed in stone. They have to be incorporated in the omnibus appropriations bill and that bill has to be agreed to and signed by the President. But obviously there will be no Mikulski/Hutchison miracle, or funding for a Weldon Shuttle extension, yet. And as predicted earlier in this forum, it looks increasingly likely that Exploration Capabilities will take another hit this year, with potential further delays to Ares I/Orion.

For those who want to see the numbers themselves, links to the bill and report language at available at Links to the FY 2008 White House request for NASA can be found here (add http://www):


Jon Goff said...

Of course, if one had an architecture based on propellant depots, this wouldn't be such a problem. You could use your lunar transfer stage to do the lunar orbit insertion if it wasn't also trying to function as a second stage (just to reach orbit)...